N.J. school board reintroduces changes to student publication policy

NEW JERSEY — The Northern Highlands Board of Education reintroduced changes to its school-sponsored publications policy on Monday after faculty and alumni criticized attempts to change the policy last year.

The proposed policy would set timelines and a format for prior review and require student reporters to disclose to their adviser the names of anonymous sources. It would also regulate how students’ stories are displayed online.

“It’s like the board has gone into everything that could ever happen in a newspaper and say ‘well, you can’t do this and you can’t do that,’” said Susan Everett, the New Jersey director of the Journalism Education Association. “At the beginning, they say all the right things about the role of the newspaper in a free society but then there’s no freedom left.”

In September, The Board of Education proposed publication policy changes that gave the school district editorial control “over the style and content of student expression in school-sponsored publications,” adding that the publications should “foster a wholesome school spirit and support the best traditions of the school.” Under the proposed policy, before students could use anonymous sources they would have been required to disclose the sources’ names and contact information to their adviser, who would evaluate the sources for motive and credibility.

After faculty and alumni complained the proposal would grant excessive censorship authority to the school’s administrators, the board tabled the proposal for further review, said Tammy Evdokimova, a former editor in chief of The Highland Fling, the student newspaper at Northern Highlands Regional High School.

In March 2014, a Highland Fling reporter wrote a story — using anonymous sources — alleging that after administrators filed complaints about the superintendent, his wife asked the principal to withdraw the complaints and apologize.

After reviewing the story, the principal deemed the article unfit for publication because he said it discussed confidential personnel information and it was unbalanced. The story was eventually published after she appealed the principal’s decision to the school board.

David Rubin, the school board’s attorney, said board members consulted faculty and The Highland Fling’s staff to address their concerns when writing the new proposal, adding that “the policy explicitly ties standards of student writing to generally accepted journalistic principles.”

“This policy that I’ve worked on here goes into far more detail than any other school publications policy I’ve ever worked on in my nearly 40 years of representing school districts throughout New Jersey,” Rubin said, adding that the board updates all of its policies periodically.

According to the proposed policy, if a student publication would like to post its content online, it may only do so in a “read only” or PDF format. The current policy, implemented in 2000, has no regulations for online content.

“As school newspapers are going increasingly online, I can’t help thinking that would be an extremely unreasonable provision,” said Everett. “The best websites are not PDFs of printed pages. This seems like an effort to undermine the continued survival of the school newspaper.”

Under the proposed policy, students would have to submit their content for prior review to the principal five days before publication, instead of two days under the current policy. The principal has to respond to approve or deny the content within five days; otherwise, it is deemed approved for publication. The publication can appeal within five days to the superintendent and, if students disagree with the superintendent’s decision, they can appeal to the Board of Education.

Evdokimova said the new proposal “really does address many of the concerns that were raised” by The Highland Fling’s staff and faculty in September. However, she said her main concern with the current proposal is its anonymous source provision. Having to reveal the identity of anonymous sources to advisers could deter sources from participating in controversial stories, she said.

“It’s significantly better than what the board originally had where they basically prohibited the use of anonymous sources,” Evdokimova said. “I’m glad they revised that, but I do think it will limit the ability of student reporters to cover controversial material.”

The current policy does not regulate the use of anonymous sources.

Everett said oftentimes the adviser doesn’t want to know the identity of an anonymous source. Advisers — as school employees — may be legally bound to report what they know about unlawful activity, despite promises of anonymity.

Additionally, the proposed policy says a student publication may not disclose a student’s sexual activity or drug and alcohol use because it may “infringe on the personal or family privacy” of that student and put them in danger of harassment, bullying or intimidation. Everett said that provision, along with the anonymity provision, may have a chilling effect on student journalism.

“This is another provision that would pretty much put an end to any kind of serious discussion of these issues,” Everett said. “This is where anonymous sources come in. If you can’t talk about private matters with identification and you can’t do anonymous sources, that pretty much covers the whole breadth of anything that might be even mildly controversial.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email or at (202) 478-1926.

Correction (3/4/2015, 4:00 p.m.): This story initially misstated the details of the September policy changes. Under the proposal, students would have been required to disclose the names and contact information of anonymous sources to the faculty adviser, who would evaluate the sources for motive and credibility.